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Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Readers Digest

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
January 23, 2002

(Interview with Ralph Kinney Bennett, Readers Digest. The article resulting from this interview was published in the May 2002 issue of Readers Digest.)

Bennett: What we're talking about today may sound kind of -- I'm not going to be asking you about orange jumpsuits and this or that.

Rumsfeld: Oh, what a disappointment.

Bennett: But in a way I see this as a strategic story. We're in for a long struggle. We don't know where we're going to be from month to month. I think while this seems like not centered on the war or, I think we want to be able to provide our readers, and you know there are millions of them, an insight into --

Rumsfeld: How many is it now, circulation?

Bennett: Thirteen or 14 million, something like that. And readership of course is far beyond that. But we want to be able to provide insight into who's running this thing and give them the confidence that we've got a guy there -- I said to my wife, I remember on September 11th saying to her that we can thank God that there are [elves?] in the government now. It was one thing to think about when all this happened.

In talking about how you do things, we hope this will be a way of the people seeing that the secretary of defense is fighting a war and also trying to reform the very military that's fighting that war, is this kind of a guy. That's kind of what I'm looking at. That was why, I think you saw the briefing on this.

So I'm going to ask you some of these things that will seem -- they're not on the war as such.

First, I wanted to ask you if you have had any change of thought about the secret of forging a team to do what you have to do. You've been in industry, you've been in government, and you've seen it from both sides now as the song goes. What is the secret as far as you're concerned?

Rumsfeld: The first test is to recognize that picking good people is probably the single most important thing one does. And you need to invest enough time in that and thought and care and have a concept as to what it is you think you need in these folks, and develop criteria, and interview people and talk to people about the people you're interviewing, and get smart people's views of those people and how they fit those criteria. And give it the importance and value that it merits.

Often it doesn't get that kind of attention. We took a lot of time, for example, picking through who would be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Should it be the vice chairman, should it be these various other key [sponsors] (inaudible). I don't know why, but I guess I've known my own limitations because back in 1969 when I took my first executive position as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, I just knew I needed people that were talented and spent a lot of time on it, literally avoided dealing with the substantive issues, dealing with the [press], dealing with (inaudible) and just focused on the people part of it. I did the same thing in a series of posts.

At the Office of Economic Opportunity I ended up hiring Dick Cheney and Frank Carlucci and Christy Todd Whitman and Bill Bradley and a whole host of people who ended up moving up over the decades into key spots. They were and are very talented.

A second thing is to, it seems to me that -- do you have that list? Here it is.

If you think about this conflict, there was no war plan for it. There was no road map. There was no real historical experience that anyone could point to immediately. And so one way to do things is to take things as they come and make the best possible decision you can. The inevitable effect of that is that the totality will be somewhat random. It won't have a coherency because you don't have a plan, and you don't have a war plan.

So to, as a substitute for that we started developing a series of concepts or directions that we thought were right but may need to be calibrated. Then we began testing individual issues as they came along against those general directions or those concepts. Which after the road map is the next best thing, I think. And it provided some structure and some coherence to what we were doing.

If you take the coalition issue, once you say you're going to need other people or want other people's assistance, and you begin that process of going to them and asking for their assistance and their answer is for what? If you don't know what's out there, it's a little hard to answer it with great precision.

Second, if you need a lot of help the minute you go from one to two to four to six you've got people in different parts of the world, people with different perspectives, people with different value systems, countries with different relationships and you cannot reasonably expect every single one of them to agree to every single thing we may think we need to do. So you end up the risk of a Kosovo situation where an awful lot of people are involved in what could be targeted and what could be done and so forth, and it affected the time line and it affected the target set. That is something it seemed to us wasn't acceptable.

So what we did was we fashioned a concept of floating coalitions, recognizing that people ought not to be required to agree to every single thing that gets done, and that we'll end up with an awful lot more support if we let the mission determine the coalition than we would if we forced the coalition to determine the mission.

Bennett: And also having the knowledge, as you pointed out, I don't know whether it was with Tim Russert or what, that the coalition is not -- in the end we're going to do what we have to do.

Rumsfeld: We have to.

Bennett: We can't let the coalition drive things. And we have a plan.

I think one of the things that most struck me at the outset when everything, the balloon was up and the rubble was falling was when you had the temerity to, when the military said this is the way we're going to do this you said well, wait a minute. That's not good enough. Let's go back and let's recast it.

How were you ready to do that? Was that on instinct or was that on -- because you had already had the right brains to pick? What was it that told you -- I'm saying that there are a lot of people who would have said I've got to do something and here is a plan and these are the people that are supposed to do this. But you may have had the same kinds of things when you were at Serle or whatever. You were able to say I don't like this, this isn't enough.

Rumsfeld: I ask a lot of questions and I know, I tend to know what I know and tend to know what I don't know, and there's an awful lot more of the latter. I, as a result, ask a lot of questions and am perfectly comfortable doing that. I think of myself as the link between the commander in chief, the president of the United States who represents the people of the country on these issues and everything that happens out there. So the question is how can I best represent him? If you think about risk, there's been a tendency to be somewhat risk adverse since Vietnam. And I concluded, and visited with the president about when I first arrived, or when he was talking to me about coming, that I was concerned about that. That I had friends around the world who felt it weakened the deterrent if every time the United States got into a difficult situation, someone got killed or someone was captured, if we pulled back in a reflex mode, that it would encourage people to take a crack at us. And conversely, I wanted him to know and he agreed completely and we agreed that when something happened that we very likely would be leaning forward, not back, and that we felt it was important to get that pendulum set properly so the world did not come away with the impression that we were a welcome mat that they could wipe their feet on.

So what I did was I took that responsibility and with the chairman and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with the combatant commander, set in place a process where we talked continuously. A couple of times a day, and met together. All of us were able to raise questions and develop an understanding of what risk level the president was willing to take. I was the interpreter of that and dealt directly with him on those things.

They would have no way to know that, what his expectations or willingness -- they would all be functioning off of their background, their experience. Of course they have grown up in the military over the last 20 years and in the post-Vietnam period, with the normal understandable set of impressions. So it was my job to make sure that they understood what the president was thinking and that they had an opportunity to be with the president and to look at him face to face and take a sense of him and his conviction and his determination, his will, because it affects how people behave down the line.

If they read a person at 60 percent that's one thing; if they read him at 100 percent it's another thing.

So we fashioned a process so that they were able to be in touch with him and have a sense of him, and I did, and he can't know what people are thinking down there until they get things polished. If you wait until they're polished and they're fashioned by misimpressions or views that used to be appropriate but are not appropriate for this commander in chief. So it's more of a facilitating responsibility to see that their impressions of -- Is the playing field this wide or is it that wide? One can't know that until one knows up above, the president can't know that until he knows what the possibilities are and what the risks are if the playing field's this wide as opposed to that wide. And what the implications are. And the people down below can't know that the field could be this wide or that wide depending on what the implications of that might be.

So it requires dealing with a president in a way that he becomes familiar with the, from his perspective, the micro-elements of what's being considered and in a way that he can then give guidance and expand the horizons or the views or the perspectives of the people doing that work.

No one divined anything. It is an iterative process that goes on. And fortunately we have really truly wonderful people in the key spots, the chief and the chairman and the vice chairman and the combatant commander and others around and advising, and we have a lot of good civilian advisors. Melvin Poles is a very thoughtful person, Doug Feith is a very thoughtful person.

Bennett: What's the secret, as you say you need to choose good people and then once, that puts you a long ways along, you ask questions and ask a lot of questions, and some of those are going to be the right questions.

Rumsfeld: You've got a --

(Laughter)

Bennett: But how do you -- what has been your secret? They use the phrase staying focused, but knowing what to stay on.

Rumsfeld: It is, after people it is establishing priorities. There is no question. You put your finger on it. There are only so many hours in the day and there are only so many things people can think about. And one, whether it's in business or government or any big project, you've simply got to decide what it is that you are going to concentrate on. What are the three or four or five things that can make the difference in what it is you're doing? It doesn't take a genius when there's a war to select that.

But then the question within that, what is it that you need to focus on, and what can you affect and what can't you affect?

Bennett: Was there a moment when, in this last few months, where you had a feeling we're doing okay. I think we've got, things have come together. We're going to get this thing. In other words you felt you had your ducks in order, so to speak, and realizing the exigencies of war, and especially one of this nature, which is so unpredictable. But have you felt we're going to beat this thing? Or hasn't that happened?

Rumsfeld: What happens to me is I tend to decide what's important, what I think is important, get good people working on it with some direction and guidance, and then think about what's coming next rather than micro-managing or tinkering or calibrating. The focus has to be what can go wrong. What can go right that you need to be ready to seize and take advantage of, and what else ought you to be doing? What's missing?

An awful lot of people can take a plan, and blue pencil it, and make it slightly better. One of the keys is to say what beyond the plan ought to be looked at. What's missing? What hasn't been thought of in there?

Bennett: One thing that struck me about you throughout this is that you have been the one voice that has constantly said look, things could get worse, we don't know what might be around the next corner, have tried to really head off complacency.

Rumsfeld: Right now I am very worried about the fact that there are still al Qaeda and Taliban in the country. We have peacekeeping forces there now. We have our forces there now. They're out roaming around the countryside.

Bennett: One of the concepts that we -- (interruption) --

We were talking about how treacherous the situation is in Afghanistan. And you're worried about the fact that they're still in this place, and we know how insidious this whole situation is.

Rumsfeld: It is a heck of a dangerous spot. And the other thing that's out there is, we've put a lot of pressure on terrorists but we haven't dealt with those terrorist networks completely. We've got a lot of them arrested, a lot of them being interrogated, but the more you find the more you talk to them the more you know there are. They're still capable of conducting terrorist attacks.

So the truth is that it is going to be a long process. It is going to be a tough process. And we've got to be honest about it and not have people believe that simply because the Taliban is gone --

Bennett: Do you think, there's an overarching matter here. We suddenly got into a war at the same time you're trying to make the leaner, meaner, the type of military that can handle, be more articulated to the new kinds of threats which is something that you have been talking about for years and years. Nobody can say you came to this game late.

Does this make it more difficult to carry on and do the kind of reform that's necessary or --

Rumsfeld: Time will tell. There are a lot of people whose instinctive reaction --

Bennett: I know.

Rumsfeld: Only time will tell. I don't know how the outcome's going to be. I know where my head is and it is that this situation is not, ought not to be and will not be an excuse for not doing what we know we need to do. And there are a lot of people who see that as the proper course, that one ought not to divide their attention, that one ought not to distract from the antiterrorist effort.

My view is just the opposite. This is a very important effort. It is an example of asymmetrical threats that are unpredictable. We're going to have to deal with things with little or no warning where we're going to have to face the realities or the vulnerability of our society because we are a free people, and we're every bit as likely to get faced with ballistic missiles or cruise missiles or cyber attacks as well as terrorist attacks. And the very way we live that we're so open and so free makes us vulnerable. We're very strong against armies, navies and air forces, but we are not hardened if you will, to use the word in the broadest sense, against the kinds of asymmetrical threats that people are instinctively discovering we're vulnerable.

Just to go back, I gave you that list of concept things that we've fashioned. They're all things we've said publicly. One of them that's interesting, I mentioned the fact that coalitions can't determine the mission, the mission has to determine the coalition because you want the maximum amount of help.

The other thing we did which was interesting was we said look, let's not characterize what other people are going through. Let's let them characterize it. Because there are a lot of people in the world who are willing to do more than they are willing to characterize themselves. And for a variety of reasons, it's uncomfortable for them to say how much help they're giving.

Bennett: Like the French used to be.

Rumsfeld: Right. So to the extent that we go around and say they're sharing intelligence or they're letting us use their bases for this or that, it's harmful to the cause because they'll have to stop doing it.

So I adopted a policy of just not doing it, not characterizing what other countries are doing. Saying we're very pleased with what they're doing, if we are; or we wish they would be doing more if we felt that way. But not being [pre-thought?]. Of course that led to much broader help than we otherwise would have gotten.

It's those kinds of things, it seems to me, that give a structure or a direction to what it is we've been doing.

Bennett: That's got to be -- just looking back on the last few months, as I say these rules were not just a frivolous thing. You tried to use them and they're kind of a way of establishing (inaudible). Have you, are there any that you don't have, that you've had to modify or you found it pretty much in the nature being what it is of things that they still apply?

Rumsfeld: I think more the latter than the former, but I haven't really thought about modifying them because I've been so busy. There have been people who have been trying to get me to write a book on my rules, but there's no way in the world I've got time to do it.

Bennett: So you think some may need to be modified but you haven't had a chance to really think about it, right?

Ms. Clarke: At different times different ones seem to be particularly relevant. Something will happen.

(Phone interruption)

Ms. Clarke: I apologize. Our comptroller is standing outside the door eagerly waiting.

Bennett: Believe me, I'm not going to stand in the way - I'll let you get back to defending the public. As Schneider used to always say, "Let's go save the republic."

Rumsfeld: Thank you.

Bennett: Thank you very much